As Baltimore school officials begin to re-examine policies governing student behavior, parents and advocates are urging that more be done for misbehaving students before suspending or expelling them from school.
"It is important to maintain safety in schools," said Philip J. Leaf, director of the Center for Prevention of Youth Violence at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health. "[But] it also is important to provide youth in trouble with the types of support that will help them stay in school and graduate to success."
School officials initially are reviewing rules regarding what procedures should be followed after a student is suspended or expelled, and will present recommendations to the school board Aug. 26. They'll turn next to what interests critics most: the student discipline code, which ranks misbehaviors and lists possible punishments.
Some parents and student advocates are questioning whether the discipline code can sometimes be too severe. Consider these incidents:
Given a bag of marijuana by a friend, a second-grader panicked and tossed it in the cafeteria trash can.
Baltimore city school officials called that "drug possession," and the pupil was placed on long-term suspension, which usually lasts about 10 days.
A high school girl, assaulted by a classmate and two of the classmate's adult relatives, tried to defend herself.
City school administrators classified that as "participating in a riot" and expelled her for the remainder of the school year.
Critics say administrators commonly are inconsistent or cavalier when applying the discipline code and are too quick to remove children from school for behavior that could be dealt with in other ways.
"The school system needs to examine classroom and school-wide practices and ensure that students with behavioral problems receive more than removal from the school building," Leaf said.
In Baltimore, the percentage of students suspended has been growing every year since the early 1990s.
In the 2001-2002 school year (the most recent data available), city schools suspended 11.6 percent of students - more than any school district in the region, and more than Prince George's County, a school system of similar size and challenges, which suspended 8.5 percent. Statewide that year, school systems suspended slightly more than 8 percent of the student population.
In many cases, suspension is undesirable, critics say, because it takes the child away from school, and it doesn't address the root of the problem or recognize any role the school might have played in the disruption. And students who are suspended multiple times often lose interest in school altogether.
"Everything [the school is] doing needs to be carefully looked at to make sure it's contributing to having students graduate, even if that child is in trouble," Leaf said.
Student advocates say the number of suspensions would likely go down if the system focused more on preventing misbehavior: training teachers to better manage their classrooms, for example, and promoting student-centered interventions, such as counseling.
Some local attorneys who have represented families in suspension or expulsion cases say they have been able to have some school board decisions overturned because they found that the system didn't do enough earlier, before resorting to the harshest of punishments. That's because the district's policies - intended to create safer city schools.
"When there are behavior problems, the school system is the investigator, they are the prosecutors, the hearing officers and the appeal board," said Bill A. McComas, an attorney who offers free legal services to students who have been suspended or expelled. "And where in that process is there anybody who has the interest of a child?"
School board member Dorothy Siegel said last week at a public hearing on the suspension policy that "the board has taken a position that when resources are available, there should be an alternative to suspension," inside the school. But only a third of city schools have "in-school suspension," in which disruptive children are removed from class, but not from school, said Gayle Amos, who heads up the system's special education services. So, too often, suspended children go home to unsupervised homes or unsafe neighborhoods. In many cases the children are sent home to virtual playgrounds that make the suspension seem more like a vacation than a punishment, critics said.
Robin El-Amin's 7-year-old grandson was suspended for kicking an aide and was sent home from Moravia Park Elementary with a work packet to complete.
"I didn't have anything else to do with him after I gave him his couple hours of work," El-Amin said. "So it was almost like a reward for him. It's like, 'Now you get to come home to your big bed, your PlayStation and now you get more lunch.'"
That's the reason Christopher N. Maher, education director of Advocates for Children and Youth, called suspension "a backwards policy."
"I question the effectiveness of out-of-school suspensions at all," said Maher, whose Baltimore-based group pays close attention to education-related matters. "You're sending a child away from a learning environment, and in some cases, you're sending a child from the only stable environment in that child's life. I think it also reinforces the notion that getting away from school is a solution to your problems."
In fact, education experts say, suspension can be a predictor of a student dropping out.
"For elementary school kids especially," said Winnie C. Borden, executive director of Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, which offers free representation for families in suspension or expulsion cases, "their view of school is formed early. If they are suspended from school or expelled, or on a long-term suspension, their feelings about school are going to be affected - and certainly their ability to learn."
Christine Cichan, who heads the system's Office of Attendance and Suspension Services, said the district is trying to improve.
Suspensions are more accurately recorded and followed up, she said. And, Amos said, a group of pupil personnel workers have been reassigned to be suspension counselors, specifically to work with the children and their families.
The system plans to form a task force to evaluate the student disciplinary code and plans to consider community recommendations, Amos said.
"We know that there's a need for more behavioral interventions in the schools, and there's a need for more alternative programming, so that we don't have to suspend them," Cichan said.